Maoist lock, Nepali key

Kanak Mani Dixit
8 May 2009

After two days of constitutional and political crisis, the politics of Nepal took another twist when prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ("Prachanda') announced on the afternoon of 4 May 2009 that he would resign from leadership of the government. Towards the end of a fourteen-minute speech full of tirades against political opponents and pot-shots directed at New Delhi, Dahal suddenly announced that he was leaving his post.

Kanak Mani Dixit is the editor and publisher of Himal Southasian

This article, with minor editorial variations, was first published in Himal Southasian

Also by Kanak Mani Dixit in openDemocracy:

"Nepal: the underbelly of the beast" (13 April 2006) - with Maryann Bird

"Nepal: the rising" (24 April 2006)

"Nepal: the Maoist transformation's fuzzy logic" (22 June 2006)

This resignation is a welcome harbinger of the democratisation of Nepal's Maoists, who have chosen the parliamentary practice of resigning from government when the position becomes untenable. The alternatives, as proposed by various Maoist leaders during the twenty-four hours prior to the prime minister's speech, would have engulfed the country in agitations and challenged the constitutional president, Ram Baran Yadav. That may still happen, if the Maoists' intent is to create anarchy and a campaign against the president from the streets.

The Maoist-led government came to power after the decisive win of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in the general election of 10 April 2008, two years after after the ending of the civil war of 1996-2006 that had cost 13,000 lives (see Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide", 16 April 2008). Pushpa Kamal Dahal was sworn in as prime minister on 18 August in a parliamentary vote (465-113) over Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba.

In the subsequent nine months, the people of Nepal have been confronted by a Maoist leadership deficient in important ways: lacking in statecraft; issuing threats to all and sundry; creating a lawless land ruled by impunity; undermining each and every institution of the state. Even more important, the Maoists - despite being the largest party in the constituent assembly - were either unwilling or unable to lead the peace process and the writing of the new constitution.

To stay or not

The immediate cause of the crisis was the unilateral decision by the prime minister and his Maoist cabinet colleagues to sack Rookmangud Katuwal, the chief of the army staff (CoAS), for alleged insubordination. This decision was rejected by all the Maoists' partners in the ruling coalition, including the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist [UML]), which subsequently pulled out of government.

President Yadav, the first head of state of the new Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal - declared on the abolition of the 240-year old monarchy on 28 May 2008 - offered the initial response to these events: that the prime minister had not followed due process, which the interim constitution stipulates as government by consensus among all political parties during the transition period. Late in the evening of 3 May, the president sent a note asking the CoAS to stay in his job.

The Maoist party erupted in protest, even as General Katuwal - strengthened by the president's note - consolidated his position vis-à-vis the Maoist appointee as CoAS. From the morning of 4 May, Nepal's political class buzzed with questions about just what the Maoists would do.

The prime minister, having studied the numbers and assessed the situation, seems to have concluded that a vote of no confidence would pass. The question was thus whether to take the low road of mobilising his followers (which would have affected his and Nepal's international credibility) or the high road of parliamentary practice. He may not have taken all of his party members into his confidence when he chose the latter path. In so doing, though it is still too early to say for sure, Dahal also seems to have paved the way for his own evolution as an establishment politician in Nepal. In any event, his resignation has raised his personal stature even as it may have nonplussed some of his colleagues and followers.

Dahal's actions have also saved the institution of the presidency from being dragged deep into the mud. The presidency is important for the consolidation of the Nepali republic, and a constitutional challenge to President Yadav's decision to retain the CoAS in his position would have weakened it at a particularly vulnerable stage. For Dahal and the Maoists to continue on the high road, they must shun the temptation to attack the presidency for as long as they are out of government.

To join or not

The hope now is that a government of national unity can be formed that would allow for the writing of an inclusive, democratic constitution. It would also lead towards a revival of the peace process, which had been stalled due to Maoist demands for a wholesale merger of their combatant force into the national army (see Manjushree Thapa, "India's misty season", 7 April 2009).

The government as led by the Maoists over the last nine months has been an opportunistic coalition of incongruous partners that had kept the opposition Nepali Congress and others at arm's length. The interim constitution mandates that an all-party government is created and enjoins all political forces to work towards consensus - a stricture that is supposed to help with both the continuing peace process and the writing of the constitution. Such a government would also be able to tackle the issue of the demobilisation of the Maoist combatants, ensuring some integration into the national-security forces without destabilising them, all the while providing the majority with rehabilitation packages.

Against this backdrop, the future lies with a new government that can last the course and guarantee a more stable polity. That outcome is more likely if the Maoists can bring themselves to join the next coalition. Whether they join or stay on the outside, and how far they opt for agitation in the latter case, will define Nepal's progress in the weeks and months ahead.

Perhaps, after a cooling-off period, the Maoists' party will indeed agree to join the government. If Pushpa Kamal Dahal was able to surprise observers by his withdrawal from government, he may yet surprise everyone by being willing to be part of a larger all-party government of national unity. In current circumstances, that would be good for Nepal.


Also in openDemocracy on Nepal's politics and conflicts:

Manjushree Thapa, "Democracy in Nepal and the ‘international community'" (4 May 2005)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal's political rainy season" (12 July 2005)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal's folly: talking absolutes at high altitude" (9 January 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Democracy from below: a grassroots revolution in Nepal" (23 April 2006)

Maya G Kumar, "Nepal on the brink" (24 April 2006)

Manjushree Thapa, "Forget Kathmandu: an elegy for democracy" (14 September 2006)

Dharma Adhikari, "Nepal: Maocracy vs democracy" (16 November 2006)

Anuj Mishra, "Nepal's peace accord: time for caution" (16 November 2006)

Dharma Adhikari "Nepal's unsettling peace" (6 February 2007)

Manjushree Thapa, "Nepal: peace is more than an election" (29 November 2007)

Prashant Jha, "Nepal's Maoist landslide" (16 April 2008)

Meenakshi Ganguly, "Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 2008)

Manjushree Thapa, "India in its Nepali backyard" (2 May 2008)

Manjushree Thapa, "India's misty season" (7 April 2009)

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